How this Chennai social worker is providing dignity to the dead in COVID-19 times
Seven months after the first lockdown was announced, Khaalid Ahamed of the Uravugal Trust has performed the last rites of more than 500 people who died due to the virus with the help of 10 volunteers
“Everyone who is born on earth must face death some day. You can try winning in anything in life, but in the end, only death succeeds” -- Khaalid Ahamed’s words strike you like a bolt of lightning. While most people come face to face with death only occasionally, the 25-year-old social worker and founder of Uravugal Trust encounters it in his everyday life, more so during COVID-19 times, and has come to terms with it.
It was in 2015 that Khaalid found his humble place in the world. A homeless old man who asked for a glass of water died before he could even have a sip of it. Khaalid was shocked and didn’t know what to do next. His group of friends found that the man had no one to claim as family, so they buried him by themselves.
“When we spoke to a lot of people including the poor and needy, they only said that they wanted a dignified funeral once they die,” he recalls. Two years later, Uravugal Trust was formed to do precisely that. Till date, he and his team of 500 volunteers have carried out the last rites of nearly 1,500 homeless people free of cost.
This service did not stop even during the coronavirus pandemic. Seven months after the first lockdown was announced, Khaalid has performed the last rites of more than 500 people who died due to the virus with the help of 10 volunteers. “We take up the responsibility of the job that society usually fears or shies away from doing,” he says, explaining how it all started. “It was in the month of May that we received the first call. It was 4 pm and a family wanted us to help them in burying their kin. So initially, with the help of three volunteers, we donned a PPE kit and buried him as per government protocols. The family members who were in utmost grief told us that what we did was unforgettable and that they were extremely thankful.”
Ask him how he dealt with the infection and he explains that he and his group of volunteers decided to quarantine themselves at all times and start doing this service. “We also read about the virus, how deadly it was and learnt how to carefully conduct the final rites of a person who succumbed to the virus.” Did they face social stigma? “I was alone at the mansion where I was staying and our volunteers quarantined themselves from their family members and took utmost care. We were fortunate enough not to have faced any stigma,” he says.
What are the protocols to be followed when burying a person who has succumbed to COVID-19? “One has to dig the soil 12-feet deep, spread bleaching powder all over the area and place the body carefully. After which another layer of bleaching powder, lizol and a few other chemicals need to be put before covering the person with soil back again using a JCB machine,” he says, adding that corporation officials later come to the area and sanitise it.
As for cremations, he says he and his team don the PPE kits, stand near the body and see that the last rites are performed in a dignified manner. All the cremations are done in electric crematoriums.
Deaths during the pandemic meant agony, extreme sadness and no time to grieve for the bereaved families. “We have seen COVID deaths across all ages. What is really disheartening is the fact that none of the relatives can go near the person and touch them one last time however closely he or she might be related to them. Some might be really well off and working abroad, but wouldn’t be able to attend the funeral. So we conduct the last rites in a dignified way as if he or she were from our own family.”
Khaalid has seen it up close and experienced it himself. A few months into the service, he tested positive for COVID-19. “I had fever and cough so when I tested, it came out positive. I was in home isolation all the 14 days. Until the day I tested negative, health officials, sanitary officials and inspectors took note of my health conditions and were extremely helpful,” he says.
Though Uravugal Trust’s services are mainly based out of Chennai, when duty calls, they take the ambulance which they bought in 2018 and ferry bodies out of the city to perform the last rites. The trust solely runs on donations from good samaritans.
From taking the body of the person from the hospital, carrying it to the graveyard or crematorium and conducting the final rites, Khaalid has done it all. “However accomplished you might be in life, it all ends the same way. It is this understanding that is making us continue this journey,” he says, noting that every death he has seen first-hand has taught him something.
Talk about the unlock norms and the ‘back-to-normal’ situation in Chennai and he says, “People haven’t seen the loss of their loved ones. If they experience that pain in front of their eyes, they wouldn’t be going out of their homes carelessly. People either don’t believe that there’s such a virus or they have the mentality of ‘let’s see when it comes’.”
An engineering graduate and aspirational motivational speaker, he bagged the prestigious V-Award, an initiative by UN Volunteers India, in 2019 and also received the ‘Hero of Chennai’ award by StepStones in 2018. He was among the few COVID warriors in Tamil Nadu recognised for his work in Bigg Boss Tamil season 4 anchored by actor-turned-politician Kamal Haasan. Despite all the awards, he says, “When people tell us ‘neenga nalla irukanum,’ there is nothing compared to it – this is what pushes us forward in our journey.”